|Professor Voldemar Vaga 1899-1999|
For some time, the Estonian art historians have been preparing to celebrate a unique birthday. On the 29 June 1999, Professor Voldemar Vaga, teacher and mentor of most Estonian art historians, was to become one hundred years old. Unfortunately it was not to be. On the 27 February, his disciples carried his body from the St Paul's Church in Tartu to the Raadi cemetery.
Professor Vaga had studied and worked at the University of Tartu, and lived there for a long time, but his native town was Tallinn. Voldemar Vaga's father Jaan was a caretaker in the old part of Tallinn, but his three sons all became eminent figures in Estonian culture. One brother, August, also became a professor at Tartu (botany having been his subject), and brother Alfred became an influential art critic in the 1920s and 1930s.
After graduating from grammar school in the revolutionary spring of 1917, it was clear that Voldemar was interested in art, but he hesitated between the professions of an artist and an art historian. During the war years of 1918-9, he studied at the Ants Laikmaa studio school and took part in several exhibitions, but in 1920 he decided to read art history in Tartu. He never gave up art, though, and continued to draw and paint until his very last years. His work was not revealed to the public for decades and Voldemar Vaga was primarily known as an art historian, and this lent itself to the surprise when the already retired professor arranged an extensive solo exhibition of his own work.
The University of Tartu had become an Estonian university a year earlier, in 1919. At first there were not enough native lecturers to cover all areas of study, and art history was also taught by professor Tor Helge Kjellin from Sweden. Vaga was interested in a wide range of subjects, and it was probably the influence of Kjellin that made him choose medieval Estonian architecture as his main subject. His first scholarly essays tackled Classical architecture, but he also published a review of the Paris Autumn Salon in 1928. During that year and the next Vaga spent much of his time in Paris. After obtaining an MA degree in Tartu in 1926, he received a scholarship which he decided to use at the Sorbonne. He travelled extensively, visiting various countries, but France and French art remained closest to his heart throughout his life. Excellent knowledge and experiences in art made Vaga doubtlessly the best connoisseur of general art history in Estonia at the time. Between 1925 and 1940 he lectured at the higher art school 'Pallas'. His lectures might have been the reason why the majority of young Estonian artists turned their attention primarily to Paris in the second half of the 1920s.
In the 1930s Vaga worked hard to spread knowledge of art history not only among the artists, but also among the whole Estonian intelligentsia. He was an editor of the art department of Estonian Encyclopaedia, and an author of numerous articles. Between 1937 and 1938 he published his monumental History of Art, unsurpassed even today, which has directed the Estonian taste in art through several decades. Estonian Art, the first general history of Estonian art came out in 1940. The analyses and opinions contained in that book are still convincing today.
Voldemar Vaga's main occupation was his teaching job at the University of Tartu. He began working as a junior lecturer at the art history office when he was still a student. This office managed to assemble the best collection of art books and photographs documenting Estonian historical monuments in the country. The fact that the collections survived all through the disasters of World War II and the forced removals from one place to another, is largely thanks to Voldemar Vaga's efforts and determination. In 1944 he was the only qualified art historian left in occupied Estonia, and the bulk of work in that field fell upon his shoulders. This was no easy task, especially during the years of the Stalinist terror. At first, however, it seemed that both teaching and research work would proceed almost as usual. In 1944 the University opened the art history faculty, and in 1946 Voldemar Vaga became a professor. Between 1944 and 1947 he was also a lecturer at the Tartu Art School and head of the newly established art history department in the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences. Then things started to change. The grim period began after the notorious 8th plenary session of the Estonian Communist Party in 1950; the art history faculty at the University was abolished, and professor Vaga was compelled to leave the Academy of Sciences. His job was now in the faculty of the history of the USSR, but everything was submitted to merciless ideological pressure. The person interested in art history had to devote most of his time to learning general history. Largely thanks to professor Vaga, the University was able to maintain some courses of art history, in the Estonian language and secretly carried by the Estonian spirit. Having seemingly accepted the new authorities, professor Vaga still mourned the loss of a free Estonian university and firmly believed that it would one day be restored.
Professor Vaga took his teaching very seriously, keeping an eye on his students careers, encouraging them to write and defend their theses. Since there was a constant shortage of art literature, he generously lent his own books to students. In the 1960s when relations with foreign countries became gradually possible again, professor Vaga's colleagues sent him books which eventually reached the desks of the students. The professor regularly provided students with cuttings from foreign newspapers which were connected with their research. Being fluent in several languages himself, Voldemar Vaga took it for granted that his students had no difficulties with languages.
Professor Vaga's dedication and his remarkable ability to work set a good example to everybody, but he was not an easy act to follow. He was determined to defy the injury to his eye during the bombing of Tartu in 1944, and subsequent injuries suffered in a car accident years later, and he always maintained his bearing, his quick stride, and the impeccable behaviour of a gentleman. He was always precise and efficient, never wasting his own or anyone else's time. His efforts bore remarkable results. During the darkest period beginning in 1947, he published nothing, but after 1957 he produced a thorough research in some field of art almost every year. The most significant of these treated Estonian and Latvian medieval architecture and Baltic art in the 19th century. (Art in Tartu, 1971 and Art in Tallinn, 1976.) Besides bulky scholarly works he also wrote a few charming detail researches which were based not only on his amazing erudition, but also on the sharpness of the artist's eye. An example of the latter could be his observation of the influence of Jean-Baptiste Pigalle's sculpture on Alexei Venetsianov's painting. In numerous undertakings professor Vaga found himself in the role of a pathfinder; he was the first to treat Estonian art in a wider international context and connected Estonian national art with the earlier development of art in Estonia. Mention should be made of his discreet - but firm - cultural-political programme to avoid a one-sided orientation of Estonian art. In his writings between 1920 and 1930 he tried to liberate Estonian art from too much dependance on German art and emphasise the achievements in the art of other nations, especially the French. In the 1970s, on the other hand, the already habitual anti-German attitudes which were insinuated by the Soviet authorities, had to be altered. Professor Voldemar Vaga's whole output in art history has a permanently outstanding place in Estonian cultural history. Voldemar Vaga's students will remember him first of all as a teacher; he had a unique personality, his own style in everything. In his lectures he always managed to keep facts and opinions separate, and he presented them in a variety of ways. The speed of the lectures was peaceful, the structure well established. A fact followed a fact, an illustration an illustration. But at times, the strict system was interrupted by the lecturer's personal observations, associations and evaluations. The opinions were often unexpectedly subjective, even provoking. But it soon transpired that such opinions were based on the longstanding personal experience in art, combined with fixed aesthetic principles. The roles of an artist and an art historian in a person can mix in various ways, but professor Vaga was able to stay faithful to both. His century-long life that ended on the threshold of a new century, teaches his disciples to serve art and study art history.
| Estonian Art 2/99 (6) | Published by the Estonian Institute 1999 | ISSN 1406-5711 | email@example.com | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |